August 2008

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ship

The Coral Princess is a beautiful ship and was built relatively recently, in 2002. It sails under the flag of Bermuda. The Coral is 964 feet long, has a gross tonnage of 91,627 and carries 2,368 passengers and 930 crew members. (Gross tonnage is a measurement of total internal volume.) In comparison, the Titanic was 882 feet long, had a gross registered tonnage of 46,328 and carried 3,547 passengers and crew. Gross registered tonnage is not the same as gross tonnage but it is similar. How similar I don’t know. The Titanic could fit more passengers on a smaller ship because more people were packed into steerage. Incidentally, there appears to be no superstition among sailors about invoking the Titanic. Many crew members mentioned it. One cruise line once even proposed building a Titanic II. Wiser minds prevailed.

shipsI’ve read a lot about cruise ships before and after my cruise because cruise ship life fascinates me. I watched a lot of Love Boat while growing up. And I liked the movie Titanic. (I know there are strong feelings on both sides about this movie. Can’t we all just get along?) Life at sea in general fascinates me. The ocean makes up two-thirds of our planet and navigating the oceans has been a big part of human history. Until recently I didn’t know much about ships or the sea outside of reading Moby Dick. In my defense, I did grow up in landlocked Colorado. My oceangoing experience is limited to a couple ferries I took while traveling around the Mediterranean in 1990.

It used to be that passenger ships were merely a mode of transportation. The rise of the airplane put them in dry dock, literally and figuratively. Suddenly there were a surplus of passenger ships with nobody who needed passage. Booze cruises had been around since Prohibition. But most cruising was done by the wealthy. And even on passenger ships, the nice cabins were taken by the rich. The poor were in steerage, which was a miserable place of crowded conditions, poor sanitation, and bad food. The cruise industry, operating out of Miami rather than the passenger ship Mecca of New York City, changed all this starting in the years after World War II.

Old passenger liners were retrofitted to make those steerage decks more appealing. And the rise of the middle class provided the customers. Now cruising is one of the most profitable businesses in the country. At the same time, it’s under the radar. Flags of convenience mean the industry is the most free-wheeling in the world. You want to study an unfettered free market? Study the cruise industry. These companies enjoy the benefits of being United States corporations without the hassles, like pesky taxes and labor laws.

Beyond that, each ship is its own world, an authoritarian regime run by the captain. In the old days, sexual harassment was common and swept under the rug. There was a caste system on the ships with the usually European officers on top and the Third World laborers on the bottom. Officers could get away with a lot. The rest of the crew could get away with nothing. Though officially forbidden, sleeping with the passengers seems to have been a recognized perk for officers. Today everything has gone more corporate, which seems to be a good thing in some ways, though most crew members still have little job security.

CPWhen we first booked our cruise, my brother and I were sharing an inside cabin and our Mom was on the other side of the ship though on the same deck, which was the lowest passenger deck. As the cruise approached, we got upgraded for free to a cabin with a veranda one deck up and Mom was placed next door. That made things easier. Ted and I got the last cabin before the stern on the Emerald Deck. (See red arrow on the handy ship guide to the left.) I read that cruise companies do this type of free upgrade because it’s easier to sell the cheaper cabins at the last minute and cruise companies want to fill all the cabins. At a certain point of occupancy, each additional passenger becomes pure profit, not just because of the cabin fare but due to all the money spent by those passengers while on board.

The boarding procedure in Vancouver was very efficient. Clearly the cruise companies have this down to a science. At check-in, we each gave the woman a credit card number and she gave each of us a combination credit card and room key card. Throughout the cruise, we would use this card to purchase drinks (both alcoholic and not), items from the gift shop and anything else one buys on board. For instance, I assume in the casino you use your card to buy chips. There are also daily service charges added to your card as automatic tips to your hotel and restaurant staff. This does all add up though my final bill was not as severe as I feared it would be. I found out later that we could have brought a small amount of beer and wine on board. Not doing this was a big mistake.

Our room was great, much nicer than I expected. I envisioned some puny room like you would get on a train but it was more like a small hotel room. We had two twin beds very close together but there was also a living area with enough room for a small desk and a counter (under which was a small refrigerator). The bathroom was small but manageable. The shower was tight but okay for me. I imagine it would be a tough fit for a very large or overweight person. The highlight of the room was a huge closet area between the bathroom and the living/sleeping area. Ted and I could hang up all our clothes and there was a small safe to store our cash and passports without worry. The room also had a TV with many channels, including what I call the Bow-Cam Channel.

The best TV show was a daily “Morning Zoo” with the cruise director and his sidekick talking about the day’s events. It sounds stupid but it was very amusing. There is also a daily newsletter that our Room Steward gave us every day. Called the “Princess Patter,” it too sounds very stupid. And I mocked this newsletter before I came on board because I’d heard about the practice. But I was wrong. It’s invaluable. The movie is what and where? The comedian is when and where? The Princess Patter knows all.

ExpThe nightlife was near non-existent on this cruise. This was not a Caribbean singles extravaganza, this was an Alaskan cruise for couples celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and honeymooning couples who acted like they were too. There were a handful of singles, a motley crew really, and we all congregated in the Explorer’s Lounge nearly every night. We made a few new friends, including a gutsy 20something from Florida named Shannon (pictured at right). She was on the cruise with her family and bored out of her mind. There was also a brother and his two sisters. They were underage so they played cards just outside the bar, by all appearances having more fun than we were. And there were some fun crew members, young people on the Entertainment Staff, doing their best to keep the Explorer’s Lounge alive and hopping.

ExpSometimes life on a cruise ship is boring. I had several books but didn’t always feel like reading. So I wandered the ship a lot. The pools were surprisingly small but as I’ve come to understand, that is standard. The hot tubs were lukewarm, I think because older folks complain when they are too hot. I complained they were not hot enough and by the end of the cruise they had warmed up slightly. It was fun to sit in the hot tubs in a cold Alaskan rain as we cruised past the glaciers.

The food. Everyone LOVES the food on cruise ships. Or everyone loves that food is always available on the ship and someone else is making it and someone else is cleaning up. I’m not that into food so I was not blown over by the options. The pizza was passable and I ate many slices. The midnight buffet was fun and I went there a few times circa 3am as part of my ship wandering. The food in the 24 hour restaurant did get a little old. On the other hand, eating dinner in the dining room was tedious. Every dinner there seemed to last three hours. I was relieved on the two formal nights when we had to eat in the 24 hour restaurant. (My Mom wanted to do the formal nights but Ted and I didn’t. We brought formal wear anyway so we could go with her. She did not because she thought we did not want to go. Textbook failure to communicate.)

sternIf we had been on a cruise without scenery (most cruises) we would have been very bored. But there was a lot of great Alaskan scenery, more of which I will put in a later blog posting. So cruising is a mixed bag in my mind. I did get the idea of a world cruise put into my head by a crew member, though, and here is what my research has yielded. It appears there are three ways to cruise the world on the high seas:

1. A cruise ship. Circumnavigate the globe on a cruise ship packed to the crow’s nest with rich elderly people. As with the other two methods, you may go through the Panama Canal or around Cape Horn, through the Suez Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope. Bring some good books. Prices $20,000 and up.

2. A freighter. Not as bad as you think. Travel with about 25 crew members and 15 passengers around the world. Most of these freighters have pools and the rooms are not too bad. The rest of the ship is low on amenities, however. The cheapest option, as little as $12,000.

3. Semester at Sea. Circumnavigate the globe with 700 college kids and a handful of professors. There are so-called “Lifelong Learners” on board too (10-40 of them) and that’s where you fit in. You have a hazy role that could include mentoring but might not. You audit classes and could potentially learn a lot about world cultures and ocean biology. (This is key, it sucks up the surplus boredom of being at sea.) This is my favorite option but it’s the most costly of the three, starting at $22,000 to $30,000 depending on the voyage you pick.

I don’t think I’ll be taking a world cruise anytime soon but it’s on my radar screen. I’m feeling the call of the sea…

We began our trip in Vancouver, and our first stop in Vancouver was Grouse Mountain. Ted climbed up “The Grind” while Mom and I took the Tramway. Here is a shot of some grizzlies who live on top of the mountain, along with some humans milling about behind them (and behind an electric fence):

grizz

And Ted and I in front of the grizzlies:

grizz

Ted and I then walked down The Grind. I thought, how bad could it be going down? Really, really bad, almost straight down without the switchbacks we have in Colorado. My first clue should have been that it took Ted over an hour to get up the hill. It took us at least a couple hours to get down. It’s a two mile trail with a 2800 foot elevation gain that is composed of irregular stone stairs. By the end, my knees were killing me and I was using a walking stick. I was afraid I’d twist a knee or worse on the first day of the trip. My sore knees did haunt me for the rest of the trip but at least I didn’t need crutches. Halfway down the Grind I wasn’t so sure that would be the case.

The second day in Vancouver we took an excursion to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia and a big tourist destination for locals and tourists alike, kind of a Martha’s Vineyard of the Pacific Northwest. To get to Victoria we took two buses, a ferry and another bus. Getting back to Vancouver was a pain in the ass too. I’m not sure Victoria was worth all the hassle. Here we are waiting on the car deck for the ferry to dock:

ferry

The motivating force for visiting Victoria was that my Mom wanted to have tea at the Empress Hotel. When we discovered it would cost $60 each to have tea at the Empress we aborted that plan. Our day of travel and visiting Victoria was made more enjoyable by our new friend Julienne, a cool German woman visiting Vancouver via Calgary who was with us for much of our trek. Here is a shot of Julienne, Ted and my Mom as we ate lunch in the Harbor at Victoria. The Empress is in the background:

eating

Here are Mom and Ted along the Harbor with the capitol behind them:

harb

And here is the first of what would be MANY totem poles:

Our afternoon mission was to see Butchart Gardens, a big botanical park and definitely the highlight of Victoria. Here is a rose canopy:

ros

And here is a pond path:

ros

Here Ted and I are in front of a fountain, possibly a salmon. I like this shot because it looks like we’re standing in front of a blue screen but we’re not:

sclp

Then it was back to Vancouver. The following day I went to the aquarium. It cost $25 but it was worth it to see dolphins and a Beluga whale with calf. I walked to the aquarium, which is located in Stanley Park, a huge park in the center of Vancouver. It’s three times as big as Central Park. Or something. I can’t remember the figure. Trust me when I tell you it’s big. I walked along the harbor en route. I tried to time this picture to get one of the landing seaplanes in the shot but I was unsuccessful. I did find the mid-harbor Chevron station amusing:

harb

That afternoon we boarded our ship, the Coral Princess. Here is a shot of the Vancouver skyline as we were leaving. That building in the background that looks like DIA is the cruise ship terminal:

vanc

And here is a shot of my Mom and Ted on the Promenade Deck as we were rounding Stanley Park and headed out to sea:

stanl

Next episode: The Coral Princess